How to stop someone going off topic and hijacking your conversation

How to stop someone going off topic and hijacking your conversation

Some people waffle, some speak in circles, and others simply hijack the conversation with their own agenda. It can be hard to enter a conversation knowing you have some important ideas to cover, only to walk away disappointed and frustrated, yet again, because the conversation got derailed, and you were left to book another meeting time to try again. This is especially frustrating if the person in question is usually hard to get an appointment with. Whether the inability to stay focused on the topic at hand is a narcissistic communication habit, a result of distraction, or simply from a lack of awareness, it is a common challenge that many of my clients bring to their sessions with me. 

  • How do I keep other people focused on the important ideas I need to convey? 

  • How can I bring them back to the main points when they go off topic? 

  • How can I keep them engaged and listening? HELP!

 A while ago a client of mine had an important conversation booked with a key stakeholder. The meeting had shifted three times already, and had been reduced in length, twice. My client was left with 15 minutes at the end of the day to get the stakeholder across the main ideas before the next committee meeting. He knew that the stakeholder was notorious for listening to the first few sentences only, before steering the conversation into unrelated tangents. He knew he needed a clear strategy going in.

Peg the ideas to hold the focus in

When putting up a tent, you push a few pegs into the ground to create a frame for your tent and the space you wish to occupy. The pegs stretch the tent to its fullest capacity without breaking it. They give the tent the right shape, and ring fence the geographical boundary you wish to be in. Conversations with frameworks can provide similar structure, and guidance, to keep topics on track. They allow the listener to know what ground needs to be covered, and what the boundary of the conversation is. Numbering your ideas is a great way to use ‘conversational pegs’ to create a framework within which to explore ideas. In practice it sounds like this…

 “Hi John. Thanks for meeting with me today. I know you have a lot on the go, so I’ll make this quick. There are three key points that are going to cause the most disruption in the meeting next week. I want to give you a heads up for each one, so you’re not caught off guard. How does that sound?”

This was the conversational peg approach my client started his meeting with. And the response he got, almost floored him:

“Sounds great. What are they?” (…Point 1, point 2…) “Yes that all sounds accurate. I’ll be sure to look out for that in the meeting. And what’s the last point?”

“What’s the last point???” My client was dumbfounded. Not only had he managed to hold the floor during the short conversation, but also, he’d managed to keep the stakeholder focused and engaged and asking for more! Why did this work so well you might be wondering? Let’s dissect it and find out. 

The secret to success was in the stakeholders’ brain. The brain likes novelty, mystery, and getting closure. All these elements worked together to draw the stakeholder out of his own thinking, and into curiosity. His brain was hooked. He wanted more. 

You see, when you announce the number of items to cover, you set the brain up to be curious about what they are. It starts guessing what each point might be, and wants to know if it’s right. It also needs closure. The brain seeks to fill in the missing pieces in order to close the gap. So, if you announce you’ll cover three points, but only get through two, the brain is working in the background to find out the third point. It wants to know. It needs closure, and doesn't like to be left hanging.

And that's good news for us. We can use these conversational pegs to lure the listeners’ brain into staying with us through the whole conversation… despite themselves!

So next time you need someone to stay focused, lead them through the ideas by pegging them with numbers. This way you will stay on track, and they will stay engaged, and everyone wins. 

'Til next time.

Warm regards,


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